In eighth grade, she and her sister watched television after school one night and saw what was going on halfway across the world. People were dying and losing their homes as soldiers on both sides fought in the jungles.
That’s when Mary Beth Tinker, in 1965, decided to take a stand against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband at school, which would eventually lead her to fighting a civil rights battle in the Supreme Court.
The First Amendment icon spoke to students at Indiana University Southeast on Wednesday. With the graphic images of the war, as well as Walter Cronkite’s nightly soldier death tolls, she felt morally obligated to stand up for something she didn’t believe in.
“We would see the bombs, the fire, the huts on fire,” Tinker said. “It seemed like the whole world was on fire as you watched those scenes.”
The speech was part of IU Southeast’s “Common Experience” program and sponsored in part by the Louisville Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Adam Maksl, assistant professor of journalism at IU Southeast, said he noticed the Tinker Tour was nearby and decided to call to see if it could drop by the campus.
In his opening address to the students, he said the victories won by Tinker are still relevant for today’s youth.
“As members of society, we are confronted daily with ethical questions and decisions,” Maksl said. “Even though it’s been more than 40 years since that decision [the Supreme Court decision in Tinker’s case], it affects us today in helping to ensure our freedoms and to stand up for the causes that are most important to us.”
Tinker talked about how she was nervous about taking a stand at first. School administration got word two days before the silent demonstration planned by her siblings and friends, then made a rule against wearing black armbands.
Though she still opposed the war and her father didn’t think it was a good idea to break the new rule, Tinker, her siblings and friends wore the arm bands. She was suspended for a week.
She fought her case to retain her First Amendment rights as a student, but lost both in district court and the court of appeals. In 1969 when her case reached the Supreme Court, she won a precedent-setting victory that allowed the rights of students to apply even inside schools.
Students in Southern Indiana have used her case as leverage to preserve their freedom of expression. Students at Jeffersonville High School fought to keep control of what they could publish in 2011. They also fought to keep a Facebook page up in the same year, called “You Know You Go To Jeff High If ...”
Tinker said people across the country don’t understand the full weight of the First Amendment and what rights it protects, but she said it’s very important for students to know their rights, even as minors.
She said she often asks high school students whether it’s legal for them to be strip-searched on school property. She said they often don’t know the practice is illegal.
“Rights are like your muscles, if you don't use them, you can lose them,” Tinker said. “So use them and know what your rights are, too.”